How Good are You at Selling?

Make no mistake about it, we are all selling whether we know it or not. By “selling” I’m not just talking about the guy selling you some widget on a “sales call.” Every encounter, unless it is idle chit-chat (and sometimes even when it is seemingly idle chit-chat) you are presenting yourself to others — co-workers, decision makers, influencers. In some cases you are trying to gain alignment and support to an idea or proposal — selling an idea — or you are presenting yourself as a future leader or new hire — selling yourself.

Quite a few people I know recoil at the thought that they are or need to “sell.” They think selling is “selling out” or some kind of tawdry pitch that is about deception or some other unsavoury act that is beneath their dignity. Well, those folks are in for a nasty surprise. If the semantics of the word “selling” or “sales” is throwing you off, get over it. Selling, convincing, framing, presenting — call it what you will, each of us needs to understand that we are, poorly or effectively, putting ourselves forward everyday in the marketplace of employment and ideas.

Have a steady job already? Well, in every encounter people are, rightly or wrongly, sizing you up and making judgments on your maturity, competence, and usefulness. Those perceptions form the basis of decisions about promotions and who is let go. Looking for a new job? You’re selling your accomplishments and how your expertise and past wins will help a new employer solve their current problems or reach their goals. Trying to get a project or idea approved? You’re selling an idea to people.

One of the key  tools of selling is the so-called elevator speech. Geoffrey James in Inc Magazine has a good summary of how to approach this critical skill:

If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you think an “elevator pitch” is a one to three-minute sales pitch that you could presumably give during a very long elevator ride. If that’s what you think, I’m sorry: You’ve been completely misled.

Let’s start with the basic fact: Nobody listens to sales pitches. (Do you listen to them? I don’t. Especially if they are coming from some bozo I just met.) To make matters worse, when most entrepreneurs give their “elevator pitch,” they talk really, really fast so as to cram as much as information as possible into a short a time as possible. In professional sales, this is known as the “spray and pray” method. It’s not only ineffective, but it’s irritating–especially if your listener didn’t sign up for an information dump.

That being said, you’re crazy if you don’t have an elevator pitch, providing you realize that it’s not a sales pitch, but a way to turn a casual conversation into a sales opportunity. What It Should Really Be The original idea behind the elevator pitch was to have something that you’d say to a potential customer whom you happen to meet by chance. While the “elevator” scenario is a bit absurd, there’s no question that chance conversations can result in business opportunities.

Bob Carr, the CEO of Heartland Payment Systems–one of the largest credit card processors in the United States–once told me how he sold the idea for his new business to an investor whom he met at a wedding. A real “elevator pitch” presents you and your offering in a casual, socially acceptable manner. That means no sales pitch. Period. Instead, you introduce yourself and your firm in the natural context of a social conversation.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Position Your Firm

This is a carefully crafted sentence (that’s just one sentence, folks) that describes who you are and what you do for your customers. It’s what you say to somebody who asks: “So, what do you do for a living?” Here are some examples:

  • “Retail firms use our software and services to train their employees, resulting in an average 10 percent increase in sales.”
  • “Within a year, our customers typically save 10 times more than they spent to install our employee tracking software.”
  • “We help companies lower IT procurement costs—typically by 20 percent or more—by negotiating directly with major IT vendors.”

Note that all of these responses to “What do you do for a living?” state a quantifiable benefit to your customers that would be relevant to a prospective customer. Also note that all the responses are pithy enough to be socially acceptable. When you position your company in this way, the person you’re talking with will express either disinterest or interest in what you just said. If it’s disinterest, the person is not a potential customer–so let the matter drop. If the other person shows interest–maybe by saying something like, “how do you do that?”–then you proceed to Step 2.

2. Differentiate Your Firm

The person you’ve just met has shown some interest in your firm, based upon your one-sentence position statement. Your job is now to show why you and your firm are unique and different from your competition. Do this by revealing one or two facts that prove your uniqueness. Examples:

  • “We have a unique methodology and supporting software based on some proprietary scientific research that we funded through MIT.”
  • “We’ve been able to prove that some customers have gotten that ROI in less than six months.”
  • “We’ve got extensive contacts that let us know the biggest discounts that the IT vendors have offered in the past, so we use those as the basis for negotiating your price.”

Note that the examples match the positioning statements in Step 1.

3. Open a Conversation

Assuming there are still signs of interest, ask an open-ended question to find out whether or not the person you’ve just met actually is a potential customer or just being polite. Examples:

  • “Just out of curiosity, what priorities might you have in these areas?”
  • “You seem intrigued. Of what I just said, what might be of interest?”
  • “Hey, enough about me. How does your firm handle that kind of problem?” No need to get fancy. Be sure the question is open-ended rather than something that can be answered with a simple yes-or-no answer.

4. Ask for a Meeting

If you’re following the steps, you’ve now spent about somewhere around 40 seconds on the conversation–about half of which consisted of the other person speaking, and you listening. If it makes sense to have the conversation continue, it’s now time to ask for a meeting to discuss the matter in more detail–so you can drop the business talk and go back to discussing, say, how lovely the bride looked. There are two basic approaches.

If the prospect seems skeptical or hesitant, ask:

  • “If we really could do [insert something of value to the customer here], what would your thoughts be on having an initial conversation with us to hear more?”

If the prospect seems interested or enthusiastic, ask:

  • “I would love to have a conversation with you about [insert something of value to the customer here]. What’s the best way to get on your calendar?” It’s that simple.

No sales pitch, just regular conversation.

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